Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Easy Remote Camera Options to Enjoy Birds

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris

There are both old and new technologies that you can use with a remote camera to capture photos and videos of birds and I thought I would summarize three of them that are not costly and pretty easy to set up.

The first option has been around for a while, the remote trail cam, but it still has some real utility, is fairly economical, and also easy to use.  In addition to the camera, all you really need is an SD card to insert and capture the photos on and computer to download and enjoy them.  These cameras come in weather-proof shells and take both still photos or videos, usually in response to movement as they are motion-activated.  Newer models also have “night vision” capability, so you can get some cool shots of critters after dark.  Basically, you just set them up outdoors in an area where wildlife is likely to happen by, I put mine by a water dish on the ground that drew both birds and mammals, but you could set them up aimed at a feeder, a commonly-used animal trail, a nest box, etc.  They take standard batteries to power them, you put them out, and just retrieve the SD card days or even weeks later, and then take a look at the photos it captured during that time.  Lots of options here and places to buy them.  The model I had was equivalent to the Moultrie A-35 at ~$119 (http://www.moultriefeeders.com/a-35) but there are both cheaper and more expensive options, as well as a number of other manufacturers, such as  Browning and Stealth Cam (http://bestreviews.com/best-trail-cameras).

I think these are a very economical option, a lot of fun to experiment with, and probably the easiest if you’re technology-shy.  Want to know what’s getting into your trash cans at night or who’s stealing your newspaper, hey, these will work for that as well.  With mine at the water dish, I learned that many animals had some interesting routines, for instance, Mourning Doves liked to collect there at sundown before flying off to roost somewhere else.  I might have a dozen or more that I wouldn’t see any other time of day.  And weirdest of all, one summer I had a Cooper’s Hawk that almost every day would just visit and stand in the water for long periods?  Was he cooling off his feet or what?  Things to watch out for, wind, if you point your camera at a tree or bush that will move in the wind, you will end up with hundreds of photos that are just moving branches.  But then electrons are cheap, so you can delete them, but you still get tired of wading through all those pointless photos.

The second option I will offer you here to consider are the newer WiFi-capable security cameras.  While these were not originally intended for this purpose, when I proposed putting up a web cam at the Paton’s to monitor the feeders, this proved to be an incredibly easy option to set up, the instructions are basically three steps.   In addition to the camera, you will need an WiFi accessible  to the internet and a smart phone or computer to look at the results.  These cameras are very small and again come in water-proof shells.  Instead of looking at the results after the action, you view them in real time, although some also have a record function as well that allows you to save the stills or video to your computer.  Again, these also have a night vision capability, so you can see what’s happening both day and night.  Additionally, they have a microphone, so you can listen in on what is happening and even talk through it!  Another neat feature is that these broadcast their results via your WiFi over the internet, so you don’t have to be on site to view what’s happening.  You can see them privately via any internet-connected device or you can even make them public if you wish as we did with the Paton’s web cams.  They can be set to be always-on or motion-activated.  Again, place them where you want to see what’s happening, feeders, nest boxes, water dishes, etc.  Instead of batteries, these are powered by plug-and-wire, so you’ll need an outlet somewhere nearby and you have to be within range of your WiFi network, although I put up an extender at the Paton’s, so that we could mount the camera farther away.

Again, lots of models here to choose from, but I went with the Nest Cam (https://nest.com/camera/meet-nest-cam/?alt=1) which retails for ~$199 and you can find them at Lowe’s, Best Buy, etc.  My choice was driven by the fact that this model was by far the easiest to set up, connect to the internet, and view, something I had zero experience in beforehand.  I also liked the recording function which involved an additional monthly fee but was worth it to capture some of the action and be able to share it later.  One neat aspect is that the video recording shows a time line with tick marks where motion happened, so you don’t have to later watch 8 hours of night video to see if anything happened, you just jump to those points where motion happened, a huge time-saver.  From the Paton Center's web cams, we have learned a lot, for instance that mice were visiting the suet feeders at night but that also neighborhood cats were chasing them in that period.  I also watched the Violet-crowned Hummingbirds actually flare their violet crowns, making them much more visible.  And in one cool video, you can see a White-breasted Nuthatch try to bluff a Curve-billed Thrasher at the suet feeder with some Jedi moves that have to be seen to be believed.  I think you’ll find this type of camera easier to set up than you think and loads of fun with lots of functions, including its original use as a security monitor when you’re away.

The last type of camera I will describe here is not one that I have used myself, a nest cam that a member installed at her house in her flycatcher nest box to monitor what was going on inside.  These are very compact cameras with very short focal lengths, so that they can be mounted inside a nest box itself and capture the action.  As you might imagine, it's dark in there, so they have a night vision function.  What you’ll need in addition is either a TV to watch it on or your computer.  The model she used, the Hawkeye Nature Cam (http://www.birdhousespycam.com), is powered by an electric cord and takes real time video with a microphone to capture sound as well.  Very economical at less than $100 and available through Amazon and other retailers.  She reports a few issues, it could work with batteries but they didn’t last long enough, hence she used the plug-in power option.  Doesn’t record, which is too bad, but on the other hand, watching it on your TV is cool and she has caught some great activity, not to mention being able to teach her son about nature with their own set-up.  One interesting fact she picked up with this device is that the nest box she was using was designed for Ash-throated Flycatchers and they have used it each year, but one year after they were done, Brown-crested Flycatchers moved in and used it.  The latter come later than the Ash-throateds, interesting that this factor helped the BcFl’s find and reuse a similar nest site.

So, there are other models out there of these camera’s and even other types, but these are the ones that I have some experience with, are readily available and not expensive, and most importantly - relatively easy to set up.  I think if you want to add to your enjoyment of birds from around your house, even in the city, they are a fun option that will also furnish you with insights you might not get any other way.  Feel free to give them a try.

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